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A Learning Journey I: Curriculum Mapping as a Tool to Assess and Integrate Community Psychology Practice Competencies in Graduate Education Programs

A Learning Journey I:  Curriculum Mapping as a Tool to Assess and Integrate Community Psychology Practice Competencies in Graduate Education Programs by  Gregor V. Sarkisian and Sylvie Taylor

Author: Gregor V. Sarkisian and Sylvie Taylor


Gregor V. Sarkisian and Sylvie Taylor

Curriculum mapping is introduced as a practical tool for community psychology graduate and professional education programs to assess how their curriculum addresses community psychology practice competencies and to further develop their program. Using the Applied Community Psychology Specialization as an illustrative case study, a six-step process for mapping curriculum to community psychology practice competencies is described. Implications for academic program development and limitations to the curriculum mapping process are discussed.

Keywords: Curriculum Mapping, Community Psychology Practice Competencies, Community Psychology Graduate and Professional Education


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Curriculum mapping is an intentional, systematic process that results in a graphic representation (curriculum map) of the relationships between courses, instructional activities, student learning outcomes, program objectives, and program goals. The curriculum mapping process conceptualizes curriculum as a system, emphasizing the interrelationships between courses and their cumulative impact on student learning, achievement, and development (Cuevas, Matveev, & Miller, 2010). A curriculum map, is therefore a visual representation of the curriculum, very much like a map of an unfamiliar country (Harden, 2001). Individual courses within the curriculum function like individual cities or landmarks on a traveler’s itinerary. Each course contributes to the students’ learning much like stopping in different cities and towns on the trip provides the traveler with pieces of information about the country and its people. Individual course syllabi, serve as the travel guides, describing what one should experience along the way, how long to stay, and how much to do in each place. Academic advisors serve as tour guides, while program faculty serve as docents to student travelers. A well constructed curriculum map charts the educational journey of an academic program for its students, giving them clear information about not only what is expected in each course, but how each course relates to program goals and objectives, making explicit what they will learn, and how they will learn throughout their program of study. 

Originally designed for use in K-12 education (English, 1980; Jacobs, 1997; Jacobs, 2004), curriculum maps initially emphasized what was actually being taught within a given academic program.  A major pedagogical goal of the mapping process is to engage faculty (curriculum developers and teachers) in clarifying what they assume students are learning (the fictional or declared curriculum), the curriculum that is being presented to students (the real or taught curriculum), and what students actually learn (the tested or learned curriculum) (Harden, 2001).  Mapping closes the gaps that often exist between these diverse curricula, providing faculty with tools to analyze program curriculum in order to identify missing content, necessary and unnecessary redundancies, proper sequencing of courses and learning experiences, and an integrated conceptualization of how each course contributes to student learning outcomes, program objectives, and goals.  The end result of mapping is a curriculum that is more comprehensive, coherent, explicit, and transparent to all stakeholders (students, faculty, staff, administrators, accrediting bodies, members of the general public) involved in the educational process (Harden, 2001).  Participation in the mapping process fosters greater collaboration and collegiality among faculty members (Uchiyama & Radin, 2009) and has been identified as a useful tool for program assessment and evaluation (Armayor, & Leonard, 2010; Plaza, Dragalis, Slack, Skrepek, & Sauer, 2007). 

Curriculum mapping has gained popularity in higher education during the past decade (Cuevas, Matveev, & Miller, 2010; Kelley, McAuley, Wallace, & Frank, 2008; Driscoll & Wood, 2007; Maki, 2004; Allen, 2004; Harden, 2001) and has become a more prominent tool among professional and regional accreditation bodies.  While curriculum mapping has been used primarily as tool by which to assess program objectives, mapping also has the potential to be a useful tool for programs wishing to align their curriculum with professional standards or competencies (Kelley, McAuley, Wallace, & Frank, 2008). Through shifting focus from program objectives, which will likely vary greatly between graduate and professional education programs, to community psychology practice competencies, which are based on skills faculty in all programs teach, an opportunity for deeper understanding within programs and shared understanding across programs of how students learn community psychology practice competencies can emerge.        

Community Psychology Practice Competencies
Early in 2012, the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA), Council of Education Programs (CEP)-Community Psychology Practice Council (CPPC) Task Group on Defining Practice Competencies completed a draft of eighteen competencies for community psychology practice that was recently endorsed by the Executive Committee of SCRA (Society for Community Research & Action, 2012).  Table 1 presents the eighteen competencies within five domains of community psychology practice. The intent of this document is to identify competencies useful in community psychology practice. Through the use of curriculum mapping to assess community psychology practice competencies, graduate and professional community psychology education programs can: (1) Develop a better understanding of how community psychology practice competencies are integrated in the curriculum; (2) integrate desired competencies not currently included in curriculum through developing current or new courses; (3) provide students with a road map of how they will learn community psychology practice competencies through their stay in the program; (4) provide an opportunity for faculty across programs to learn from each other and further develop pedagogy of community psychology practice; and (5) provide SCRA and the field of community psychology with an opportunity to better understand how students learn the practice of community psychology.

In this paper, the authors describe how to use curriculum mapping to assess the degree to which academic program content aligns with these competencies and how the process of curriculum mapping can assist programs to identify competencies that are not addressed with adequate depth in their programs.  The curriculum of the Applied Community Psychology (ACP) Specialization at Antioch University Los Angeles is used as a case study to illustrate the process. 

The ACP Specialization is a 17-unit optional concentration that is housed within the Master of Arts in Psychology programs at Antioch University Los Angeles.  Students wishing to complete the ACP Specialization must successfully complete a lecture-based course, Community Psychology: Theories and Methods, which serves as a gateway to the ACP Specialization.  The 17-unit ACP Specialization consists of four, 3-unit, core courses (Community Consultation & Collaboration, Program Development & Evaluation, Prevention & Promotion, and Psychoeducational Groups & In-Service Training Development), each of which includes active consultation with community-based organizations, and collaboration with peers, to produce a variety of deliverables (i.e., technical reports that result from consultations, program development and/or evaluations, analyses of prevention and promotion based programming, and development of a psychoeducational or in-service program). In addition, students complete a 2-unit independent Field Study in ACP which focuses on a community-based project of their choosing and are often extensions of projects undertaken in one of the core courses (e.g., implementation of recommendations made as the result of a consultation, delivery of a psychoeducational workshop series, etc.). The remaining three required units can be completed by taking workshops (i.e., day-long or multi-day courses that focus on special topics such as coalition building, public dialog facilitation, and social justice advocacy).   A complete description of the ACP Specialization, the program philosophy and student professional development model is described in Taylor & Sarkisian (2011).

Six-Step Process of Curriculum Mapping to Assess
Community Psychology Practice Competencies
The curriculum mapping process includes developing criteria by which to assess curriculum, developing categories and descriptors which represent the range of training opportunities for students, constructing the curriculum map tables, completing the curriculum maps through independent and collaborative faculty ratings, establishing reliability through obtaining student feedback, and sharing results. The process of curriculum mapping is collaborative. It is most effective when all program faculty are actively engaged, and is much more meaningful if students are included in the process (Uchiyama & Radin, 2009). Syllabi, course materials, demonstrations of student learning, and teaching experience with the curriculum are primary sources of information to utilize in developing the curriculum maps. Below, the six-step process is described using curriculum maps the authors developed for the ACP Specialization as a case illustration. Table 2 presents the six-step curriculum mapping process.

(1) Develop Criteria to Assess Chosen Curriculum
In assessing how selected curricula address community psychology practice competencies, the authors developed both general and specific criteria. These curricula included the gateway prerequisite course, Community Psychology: Theories and Methods, the four core courses – Community Consultation and Collaboration, Program Development and Evaluation, Prevention and Promotion, and, Psychoeducational Groups and In-Service Training Development, and, Field Study in ACP.  A general framework was used to explore the level of training students receive by specific courses and community psychology practice competencies (Kloos, 2010). To explore how our curriculum address competencies in a more detailed fashion, the analyses focused on the level of content delivery in each course, student learning activities, and demonstrations of student learning. 

(2) Construct Categories and Descriptors for Criteria
In order to capture the variation in learning opportunities, categories and descriptors for criteria were constructed to reflect the full range of learning opportunities provided to students in the ACP Specialization. For the criterion Level of Training, general categories described in the literature (Exposure, Experience, and Expertise) were employed (Kloos, 2010). Table 3 presents the levels of training for the ACP Specialization required coursework by community psychology practice competencies. The legend at the bottom of the table provides the reader with a detailed description of the three categories which represent levels of training.

For the criterion Level of Content Delivery, four categories were used: Introduces (I), Emphasizes (E), Reinforces (R), and Applies (A). For the criterion Student Learning Activities, five categories were developed to capture the full range of activities by which students learn community psychology practice competencies in the ACP Specialization:  Classroom based learning (C), Reading and applied research (R), Group work (G), Writing (W), and Field learning (F). Finally, for the criterion Demonstrations of Student Learning, two categories were constructed - Oral presentation (O) and Final paper (F). Once categories were developed, descriptors for each category were constructed to reflect the specific range of associated activities. For example, with the criterion Student Learning Activities, the following descriptor for the category Classroom based learning was developed: Lecture, discussion of readings and course concepts, watching and discussing relevant documentary videos, exercises to stimulate experiential learning, and group learning exercises that may involve role play, planning, or reflection. Appendix 1 includes the curriculum map legend that provides detailed descriptions for each of the categories discussed above. 

(3) Construct the Curriculum Map Legends and Tables
Once the criteria, categories, and descriptors have been developed, the legend for the curriculum map can be constructed. Ideally, the entire curriculum map can fit on one page so as to illustrate a map of the entire program. The legend is helpful in providing explanations of abbreviated language that is used to express as much information as possible in the smallest amount of space (See Appendix I). Through listing the community psychology practice competencies on the left column and course names, criteria, and categories on the top row of a table, curricula can be assessed on each competency. 

(4) Complete the Curriculum Map and Collaborate with Other Faculty
Using syllabi, student work samples, teaching materials, teaching experience and learning experience, rate how each course in the curriculum provides students with exposure to the community psychology practice competencies. Then, share results with your colleague(s), discuss your differences in ratings and work to reach a commonly agreed upon rating when differences emerge. Discussing differences in ratings is always a learning experience for the authors because meaningful pedagogical discussions ensue where reflection on how student learning activities can be further developed within a holistic and purposeful framework. Finally, because this is a reflective process, refinement of criteria, categories, descriptions, and ratings can be expected during each review cycle.

Table 4 presents a curriculum map of ACP Specialization required coursework by community psychology practice competencies (See Appendix I for Curriculum Map Legend). A rating of each course appears for the level of content delivery (lev), student learning activities (lea), and demonstrations of learning (dem) associated with the community psychology practice competencies. While the prerequisite Community Psychology: Theories and Methods course provides students with some level of Exposure through Introducing or Introducing and Emphasizing all community psychology practice competencies, the core courses and Field Study provide students a level of Experience by incorporating fieldwork to integrate other student learning activities through practice with community based organizations. Across core courses and the Field Study course, nearly all student learning activities and demonstrations of student learning include the application of the Foundational Principles – Ecological Perspectives, Empowerment, Sociocultural and Cross-Cultural Competence, Community Inclusion and Partnership, and Ethical, Reflective Practice.

In addition to the foundational principles, nearly all student learning activities and demonstrations of student learning across the core courses provide students with a level of Experience in five additional competencies: Program development, implementation, and management; small group processes; resource development; collaboration; and, information dissemination and building public awareness. Expectedly, students gain Experience in the competency Prevention and Health Promotion in both the Prevention and Promotion and Psychoeducational Groups and In-Service Learning core courses. Additionally, students gain Experience in the competencies Consultation and Organizational Development and Program Evaluation in the other two core courses – Community Consultation and Collaboration and Program Development and Evaluation. In accordance with the student-centered focus of the Field Study, any competency may be of focus, yet none are prescribed. While students receive a level of Exposure to Participatory Community Research in three courses and Exposure to Public Policy Analysis, Development, and Advocacy in two courses, the four core courses do not provide students with a level of Exposure or Experience in five of the community psychology practice competencies: Community leadership and mentoring; large group processes; coalition development; community development; and, community organizing and community advocacy.

(5) Include Students to Establish Reliability
Students who have completed the courses under review are perhaps best equipped to provide feedback on how coursework has contributed to their development of community psychology practice competencies. This is a necessary step in establishing reliability through bridging the gap between the declared and learned curriculum (Harden, 2001). Students who have provided feedback have enjoyed the process, discovered more about how they learned community psychology practice competencies, and appreciated having input into further developing the ACP Specialization. There are a number of ways in which faculty can include students in this process. Through a brief meeting, faculty can orient students to the legend and provide them with blank curriculum maps they could then complete and return in a follow up visit where similarities and differences from faculty ratings could be discussed. Alternatively, a survey could be developed to include students and alumni.

(6) Share Results
One of the greatest benefits the authors have realized through the use of curriculum mapping is a better ability to promote transparency in teaching to the stakeholders of the program. The newfound understanding of the curriculum through engaging in this process has strengthened the ability of ACP Specialization faculty to effectively communicate the pedagogical approach as well as how and why courses integrate into a program of study. There are many ways in which to disseminate learnings to benefit the interests of students, colleagues, and the field. For example, educators might consider publicizing the community psychology practice competencies curriculum map. Potential audiences and purposes may include (1) recruitment of potential students, (2) current students to facilitate increased awareness and ownership in developing competencies, (3) other graduate and professional education programs to improve shared learning, and, (4) the CEP to build a better understanding of training in the field and ways in which SCRA can support new and existing programs.

Implications for Academic Program Development
Curriculum mapping is a tool that can be used by program faculty and students to assess the extent to which their courses provide students with training in community psychology practice competencies. This process will likely validate program strengths through further developing a collaborative understanding of how students learn competencies. Additionally, this process can assist programs in identifying competencies that are currently not addressed in adequate depth but represent areas of student or faculty interest, or, are in line with institutional or program goals. Two areas in which the authors have observed benefits of the mapping process have been in course development and in cross-program partnerships and community collaborations. 

Course Development
Over the past ten years that the ACP Specialization has been in operation, the authors have developed workshops to provide students with a level of Exposure and when possible Experience in community psychology practice competencies not addressed in the core curriculum. The ACP Specialization offers 1 to 3 unit skills-focused workshops that provide exposure to competencies – e.g., community organizing, community coalition development, participatory action research – not covered in the core curriculum. Since the authors’ recent development of curriculum maps to assess community psychology practice competencies, two competencies not covered in the curriculum were identified that are of great interest to students and faculty, and are consistent with program and institutional goals - Large Group Processes and Public Policy Analysis Development and Advocacy. The authors plan to develop workshops in the near future that will provide students with a level of Exposure and possibly Experience with these competencies.

Cross-Program Partnerships and Community Collaborations
The authors have long recognized the limitations of time and expertise as a core faculty of two, and have developed partnerships with faculty from other programs and community practitioners who often teach skills-focused workshops (e.g., Grantsmanship for Non-Profits).  The curriculum map of community psychology practice competencies provides the authors with the information needed to identify and recruit faculty from other institutions or community practitioners to teach workshops that address competencies not covered in the curriculum.   Another strategy that has been used to supplement the ACP curriculum is to partner and collaborate with community organizations to develop opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience in practice competencies.  For example, the ACP Specialization has partnered with a community organization to develop an Institute for Public Dialog, housed in the community, which provides training and opportunities for ACP students to engage in the facilitation of large group process through public dialog.

Limitations to Curriculum Mapping
While the authors have realized many benefits from engaging in the curriculum mapping process, two limitations of this tool have been observed. First, without obtaining student feedback, very little can be understood about the “Learned” curriculum. Second, the predictive nature of the mapping process is limited greatly when student-developed learning experiences are the focus of study.

The Dialectic Nature of the Mapping Process
Through engaging in curriculum mapping activities, faculty can improve their understanding of the interrelationships between courses and their impact on students’ learning.  However, this work can only speak to half of the equation if one’s pedagogical approach posits that student engagement is meaningful to the learning process. Efforts to include students in the mapping process have contributed to a more complete understanding of how students learn what they learn. This dialectical conversation with students at the level of curriculum can contribute to understanding what is most useful to students in learning CP practice competencies.

Student-Developed Learning Experiences
One limitation to the map-like, predictive nature of the curriculum map is in student-developed learning experiences. For example, with the Field Study course, students develop their own learning activities and work on projects in the field. Within this type of student-focused course structure, there is very little ability to determine which competencies will be of focus. Yet, the inclusion of this opportunity on the curriculum map has also been observed to be of value to students. Prior to developing the curriculum maps assessing competencies, students were not necessarily aware of the full range of competencies that they could develop. They now have a greater awareness of the flexibility and wide range of learning opportunities that have always existed. Through maintaining program documentation on student-developed learning experiences (e.g., student portfolios, technical reports, reflective writing), faculty can learn which competencies are of most interest to students and provide future students with illustrative examples of how Field Study experiences have contributed to learning various community psychology practice competencies.  

The recent endorsement of a draft of eighteen competencies for community psychology practice has provided United States educators with a framework by which to better assess their curricula. Should the six-step curriculum mapping process described in this article be implemented by all United States graduate education programs in community psychology, it will dramatically increase transparency in the learning environment and greatly assist educators in preparing students to be effective agents of social change.

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Gregor V. Sarkisian and Sylvie Taylor Gregor V. Sarkisian and Sylvie Taylor

Gregor V. Sarkisian, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Master of Arts in Psychology Progam and teaches in the Applied Community Psychology Specialization at Anitioch University Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Sylvie Taylor, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Master of Arts in Psychology Program and is the founding Director of the Applied Community Psychology Specialization at Antioch University Los Angeles, CA, USA.

The Applied Community Psychology Specialization was the recipient of the 2010 Society for Community Research and Action, Award for Excellence in Education Programs.

Corresponding author: Gregor V. Sarkisian ( 

Antioch University Los Angeles, 400 Corporate Pointe, Culver City, CA 90230 

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Keywords: Curriculum Mapping, Community Psychology Practice Competencies, Community Psychology Graduate and Professional Education, gjcpp